Over the past two weeks, soldiers in Battambang and Pursat provinces have used anti-tank mines to destroy 22 large steel vats that were being illegally used to distill oil from rare m’reah prov trees, officials said Sunday.
Wood from the trees, also known as sassafras, can be boiled to produce the valuable oil, which is used in the production of the drug Ecstasy, as well as in cosmetics and perfume.
“Our armed forces destroyed each pot with one anti-tank mine,” said Ek Sam On, deputy commander of Military Region Five. “They used more than 20 anti-tank mines to destroy them.”
Some of the vats were as much as two meters across and two meters high, Ek Sam On said. Hundreds of liters of gasoline and oil were confiscated, as were generators and other machinery, he said.
“We are determined to stop this and crack down on them,” he added.
Officials said some mines were placed in a stack of wood beneath the vats which was then set alight, while other mines were detonated with a fuse.
Mounh Sarath, a former director of the Angelina Jolie-funded Cambodian Vision in Development, which operates in Samlot, has previously claimed that RCAF soldiers were involved in the illicit business. But Ek Sam On denied this, saying that private businessmen were behind it.
Battambang province Police Chief Choup Pothirit also denied that the military was involved in the m’reah prov cutting and distillation.
Meas Toun, chief of Battambang’s Samlot district agricultural office, also said Sunday that unknown businessmen were behind the scheme.
“According to reports, the owners are civilians, and the workers did not know where they are living and working,” Meas Toun said. “When I checked all of these names, I didn’t know them.”
The current crack down in Samlot and Pursat’s Veal Veng district involves more than 100 RCAF soldiers and police officers working with officials from the ministries of Environment and Forestry, Ek Sam On said.
In an earlier phase of the project in December and January, 35 vats were destroyed, he added.
“This is the second time, and the crackdown will last for one more month,” he said. “We are promising to destroy all of them and to stop their activity in these areas.”